Milky Way photography is exciting and overall easy even for complete beginners. Although you likely can get a nice picture of the Milky Way by just aiming your camera to the southeast and playing with different settings, you'll get way less frustrated if you plan ahead and know what you are doing.
In this guide, we will tell you what settings you should use when attempting Milky Way photography with either a DSLR camera or a mirrorless camera. We'll give you tips on what exposure time, ISO, aperture, and other types of settings work best to get the beautiful Milky Way band to pop on your screen!
So, let's now learn about the best settings for Milky Way photography!
Recommended Camera and Lens for Milky Way Photography
Let's quickly go over the gear you'll need for capturing the Milky Way. We won't go too in-depth here, but be sure to read our full guide about Milky Way equipment for much more information. Here we'll just mention the type of camera and the ideal lens to use.
1. Recommended Camera for Milky Way Photography
To capture your first image of the Milky Way, you will need either a DSLR camera or a mirrorless camera.
If you have an old used camera gathering dust, it's perfect! If not, try to get something in your budget that has a great signal-to-noise ratio and is overall popular for nighttime or low-light photography.
We've been using Canon cameras since we started, and recommend anything in the "Txi" series (T7i, T8i, etc), the Canon 5D Mark IV (more expensive), or a mirrorless camera, which is lighter and less bulky. Good mirrorless cameras from Canon include the Canon R, the Canon Rp, or the Canon R6. The best would be the Canon Ra, which is modified for astrophotography by default, but it has been discontinued.
You can also send your current DSLR or mirrorless camera to a professional to be modified for astrophotography. This will make it more sensitive to hydrogen alpha regions, which is present in the Milky Way band. For camera mods. we recommend Astrogear.
2. The Camera Lens
The lens you choose for Milky Way astrophotography is very important, as it will determine what your field of view will look like, and how fast your camera will be able to collect light. Some important features to look for when getting a lens are:
The quality of the glass used
The focal length
Look for a lens that has a focal length of between 10mm and 24mm. Do not go wider, or your image will seem to have a fisheye effect. Try not to go much bigger than 24mm if you're looking to get as much of the Milky Way band as possible, or you'll only see a small part of it.
We own two lenses specifically for Milky Way photography, the Rokinon 10mm f/2.8, which we use with our cropped-sensor camera. With our full-frame camera, which has a wider field of view, we opted for the Samyang XP 14mm f/2.4 and find that the framing is great!
Besides the camera and lens, we suggest getting a sturdy tripod, an intervalometer, and a star tracker if you want to get much cleaner images! Only get a star tracker if you've already shot the Milky Way with just a tripod before and know the basics.
Best Camera Settings for Milky Way Photography
Below we will go over the best settings to use when photographing the Milky Way, and cover the following:
Shutter Speed (Exposure Time)
The "500 Rule"
The "NPF Rule"
Main Menu Settings
Aperture Settings for the Milky Way
The aperture, also known as the "f-number", is how fast your lens will gather light on its way to reach your camera sensor.
The aperture number will depend on your lens, as each lens has its own aperture range. The lower the f-number, the faster your lens can be!
The overall rule is that you want your lens to gather light as fast as possible. This will give you a brighter picture of the Milky Way, with more visible details and colors. Following this rule, you would set your aperture setting to the lowest possible number, so that your lens is "wide open". For most lenses, this is usually anywhere between f/1.4 and f/2.8.
The only problem with this is that some lenses may not be of very high quality and will start producing unwanted artifacts, or elongated stars in the corners of your frame when the aperture is "wide open". To remedy this, you will need to take a few test shots at different aperture numbers, and find the sweet spot for your lens. Start wide open, and slowly make your way up until your stars all look round and beautiful, without any coma or artifacts in view. In almost all cases, you should be able to reach that sweet spot before going higher than f/4.
Shutter Speed Settings for the Milky Way
The longer your exposure time is, the brighter and more impressive your Milky Way shot will be. The problem is that if your exposure time is too long, you will see star trails due to the rotation of the Earth!
This is not a problem if you are using a star tracker, but can ruin your image if you are just using a tripod and are not careful. Below are two ways to counter star trails in your images.
The "500 Rule"
The "500 Rule" is a quick and easy equation that calculates what your longest exposure time can be when doing untracked photography before seeing star trails.
This rule is for beginners, and only takes into consideration the focal length of the lens and the crop ratio of your camera.
Because it is so basic, it is most of the time not good enough and you likely might still see small trails in your images.
You can round the number down if you want to play it safe, if you care about seeing trails when zooming in on your image.
Here is how to calculate your ideal exposure time by using the 500 Rule:
If you own an APS-C (Cropped sensor) camera:
500 / (1.6 * Focal length of the lens) = Maximum exposure time in seconds
Important: "1.6" is the crop factor of your camera. Canon is usually x1.6, while Nikon and Sony is usually x1.5.
If you own a Full-Frame camera:
500 / Focal length of the lens = Maximum exposure time in seconds
The "NPF Rule"
The NPF Rule is a more advanced equation used to once again find out what the maximum exposure time can be before getting star trails in untracked astrophotography. The main difference between the NPF Rule and the 500 Rule is that the NPF Rule takes into consideration the sensor dimensions of your camera. It is much more accurate, but a bit annoying to calculate on the field.
An example of the equation for the NPF Rule would look a bit like this:
2.6 / t=k*(16.856*N+0.0997*f+13.713*p)/(f*cos(δ))
Needless to say, we recommend completely ignoring that. Instead, you can find an online calculator like the Société Astronomique du Havre page and simply enter the values of your camera in there to get your maximum exposure time before seeing trails. You can also do this using the PhotoPills app which is neat.
We suggest using the 500 Rule if you are a complete beginner to make your life easier while you learn, and the NPF Rule if you intend on printing your Milky Way image onto a large print.
For owners of a star tracker:
You do not have to worry about the 500 and NPF Rules! With a star tracker that is properly polar aligned, you can do much longer exposures without the risk of getting star trails. The best shutter speed setting will depend on how much light pollution you are shooting through, but we've gone up to 3 minutes (180 seconds) when shooting from Bortle 2.
Best ISO for Milky Way
ISO settings will depend on your camera. Most recent cameras manage noise really well, and can be set to a high ISO without being overwhelmed with noise. The temperature outside will also affect how noisy your image will appear as you increase the ISO.
In short, ISO will make your image brighter, at the cost of additional noise. We usually start with ISO 3200 for our Milky Way shots, and can go up to ISO 6400 without issues with our Canon Ra.
We suggest you start at ISO 1600 or 3200, and zoom in on your test shots to see how much noise you have. Feel free to increase the ISO a bit if your images look very clean.
Additional Settings to Change for Milky Way Photography
Besides the main settings we covered above, you also will need to ensure that a few other tweaks are made on your camera so that you get the very best shot of the Milky Way possible!
We like to make our White Balance "cooler" in temperature, around 3,400K, so that our Milky Way band appears more blue than red. This will depend on your personal preference, so play with it and see what you prefer!
If you do not use an intervalometer, be sure to add a short delay (2 seconds is perfect) so that your camera does not shake as you press the shutter button each time.
Main Menu Settings
Go through the main menu settings of your camera, and tweak the following:
Mode: BULB - BULB mode will allow you to control the timing of your shots using an intervalometer. You can use MANUAL if you do not have an intervalometer.
Flash Exposure Comp: N/A - We do not need to worry about this setting.
Custom Controls: N/A - We do not need to worry about this setting.
Picture Style: AUTO - It is best to keep this setting automatic.
WB Shift/BKT: N/A - We do not need to worry about this setting.
Auto Lighting Optimizer: DISABLE - This setting is not needed for astrophotography.
AI FOCUS: N/A - We do not need to worry about this setting.
Metering Mode: Any - We do not need to worry about this setting.
Drive Mode: Single Shooting - We will leave this setting as "Single Shooting" as we will be using an intervalometer to create intervals and timers.
Image Quality: RAW - This will ensure that the camera will save all files as uncompressed and untouched data. This is very important as it will allow you to process your images with all the information retained within it later.